Information from seismic-reflection profiles, outcrops, boreholes, and potential field surveys is used to interpret the structure and history of the southern Whidbey Island fault in the Puget Lowland of western Washington. This northwest-trending fault comprises a broad (as wide as 6–11 km), steep, northeast-dipping zone that includes several splays with inferred strike-slip, reverse, and thrust displacement. Transpressional deformation along the southern Whidbey Island fault is indicated by along-strike variations in structural style and geometry, positive flower structure, local unconformities, out-of-plane displacements, and juxtaposition of correlative sedimentary units with different histories.
The southern Whidbey Island fault represents a segment of a boundary between two major crustal blocks. The Cascade block to the northeast is floored by diverse assemblages of pre-Tertiary rocks; the Coast Range block to the southwest is floored by lower Eocene marine basaltic rocks of the Crescent Formation. The fault probably originated during the early Eocene as a dextral strike-slip fault along the eastern side of a continental-margin rift. Bending of the fault and transpressional deformation began during the late middle Eocene and continues to the present. Oblique convergence and clockwise rotation along the continental margin are the inferred driving forces for ongoing deformation.
Evidence for Quaternary movement on the southern Whidbey Island fault includes (1) offset and disrupted upper Quaternary strata imaged on seismic-reflection profiles; (2) borehole data that suggests as much as 420 m of structural relief on the Tertiary-Quaternary boundary in the fault zone; (3) several meters of displacement along exposed faults in upper Quaternary sediments; (4) late Quaternary folds with limb dips of as much as ≈9°; (5) large-scale liquefaction features in upper Quaternary sediments within the fault zone; and (6) minor historical seismicity. The southern Whidbey Island fault should be considered capable of generating large earthquakes (Ms ≥7) and represents a potential seismic hazard to residents of the Puget Lowland.